The Bittersweet Feeling Of Going Home, But Wanting To Stay
Dr. Leroy Chiao is very experienced as an astronaut for NASA. The man has done as many missions as anyone and has spent a total of 229 days, 7 hours, 38 minutes, and 5 seconds in space across three space flights. A chemical engineer in his spare time, Chiao was crucial to NASA’s Advanced Diagnostic Ultrasound in Microgravity project. It was a U.S. government-funded study to see how telemedicine could work in space. Chiao recalled how he was happy yet bummed each time his mission ended.
He once wrote: “sometime around the three-to-four-month point, you start thinking that you wouldn’t mind going home. But, psychologically, you have prepared yourself for the long flight… The arrival of your replacement crew is a joyous occasion. Not only are you glad to see your friends, you are also glad because it means that you can go home soon. You look forward to the reunion with your loved ones, to looking back with satisfaction on a job well done.”
Even A Small Stay In Space Has A Dramatic Effect On The Body
Dr. Chiao has been very open about his experiences when returning to Earth. Life after space is, according to Chiao, difficult at first. He claimed that even a ten-to-fourteen-day mission can be tough. Your balance is completely off and you’ll feel very dizzy as a result. When standing for the first time, gravity sets in for the first time in a while for you. It makes you feel about five times heavier than you are, according to Dr. Chiao. Naturally, this is pretty tough on you.
However, after a much longer space flight (6 months+), these symptoms become more intense for humans. On short flights, things start to get better in a few days. But coming off the longer ones, it could take several weeks before you feel even close to normal. You want to just lay around because then you’re at least not dizzy. Yet to recover properly, you have to force yourself to move around and be as physically active as possible to help the recovery process.
In space, you feel like you have superpowers. The lack of gravity allows you to move heavy objects with ease and feel like you’re flying. It’s like being Superman, and there are few others who can explain that feeling better than Jim Voss. He flew on five different space missions from 1991 to 2001. Along with Susan Helms, he holds the record for the longest spacewalk at 8 hours and 56 minutes. He said about his experience:
“Floating is very special. It’s wonderful. I always liken it to being like Superman because I can fly. I can move heavy things around. Every day, I think, I would – I hate to say “play” – but I would find some aspect to being in space that allowed me to do something unusual. If I was moving from one side of a module to another, I could do a flip in the middle of my transfer over there, which is a pretty abnormal thing that you could do.” Voss has mentioned how losing these abilities can be jarring when you return to the gravity of Earth. You know it’s coming, but it’s still difficult to cope with for a while.
While a lot of astronauts do not realize or feel it at the time, they are all being exposed to incredible rates of radiation when they are in space. The most exposure happens when you’re outside the ISS on spacewalks or repairing. But you are also exposed to a lot on the ISS too. This is likely why some report feeling sick when on the ISS. It is not just the lack of gravity for them that causes problems. But why is it that they are exposed to so much?
On Earth, we are protected from the Sun’s radiation due to our atmosphere and geomagnetic field. This will allow rays in but keep us from taking on too much radiation. Such aid is not present for astronauts. That means, the longer you’re in space, the more radiation you’ll take on. This can be a huge problem for humans. We have known the risks of radiation exposure for years thanks to the Curie Family. Thus, astronauts go through an incredibly thorough health screening when they return from space and NASA continues to have them come in for testing. Especially those who took on longer spaceflights.
There is a lot of problems that astronauts experience when they are in space, but one specific issue NASA has started to worry about is the immune system being compromised. We now know micro-organisms that naturally live on our bodies can transfer from person to person in these closer habitats. Since stress hormones are elevated for many in space, the immune system is altered by this and it could cause problems with allergies or other sicknesses.
While crews do not typically get sick upon returning from space, there is still a risk that there could be problems with their immune systems. In fact, more research has been requested to figure out if the altered immune system issues in space could lead to autoimmune disorders. This is especially something they want to figure out before going for the Mars mission that everyone is hoping will go well. Yet if we return people to Earth that have compromised immune systems, it means we need to figure out how to keep this system in working order whether one is in space, on Mars, and obviously on Earth.
We might talk about Armstrong and Aldrin a lot due to both walking on the Moon. But another man was on that same Apollo 11 spaceship and stayed on it the whole time. Michael Collins flew that ship and safely landed it on the Moon, then safely landed his crew back on Earth. He recalled how stressful this was for him, claiming he could not return to Earth without his crew members. He knew he’d be a marked man if he did such a thing. Once they landed on Earth, Collins’ stress was eased. However, while his crewmates became well known, Collins also experienced his share of fame.
He had to also attend all the parades and press conferences they did. He was often asked by reporters “how did it feel to be alone on the ship?” It annoyed him greatly, according to his daughter Kate. Michael once said: “I’m going to find a nice big rock, and I’m going to hide under it.” Collins never went back to space and took on the role of director for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Life after space was difficult for Michael Collins, especially when called a hero. He never wanted this title and claimed astronauts should not be counted among the heroes.
Many people are uncertain about their future when they come back from a space mission. Many only get one chance to go to space. However, as we’ve mentioned, there are some who go on several missions to space. Yet when space work is done for them, what’s next? This is a struggle for many to answer because they just do not know. Early on, most astronauts had military experience and ended up going back into the Armed Forces for their respective nation. However, others went on to take various other jobs. Several decided to go into teaching, as most astronauts are incredibly intelligent.
Some are chemists or biologists, even doctors, and return to this. Of course, memorably John Glenn went into politics. Neil Armstrong worked in many areas with NASA, such as consulting on investigations. But he also returned to the Navy and taught at the University of Cincinnati too. Jim Lovell among others was pushed to go into politics but turned it down. There is an expectation to be a role model after coming back from space that seems to burden many astronauts. That expectation weighs incredibly heavy, making life after space hell for many on a mental level. As they have to live up to something quite difficult.
Where did we find this stuff? Here are Our Sources: